“Democracy takes time,” a character observes in “The Lady,” though viewers of all political stripes will be checking their watches during Luc Besson’s dully conventional tribute to heroic Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Dramatizing the long-term personal sacrifices made by Suu Kyi and her family in courageous defiance of Burma’s cruel military regime, this handsomely mounted picture is, at nearly 2 1/2 hours, far too long and indigestible for a film whose protagonist spends most of her screen time under house arrest. A marketing campaign emphasizing Michelle Yeoh’s performance in the title role will precede muted public reception.
A prologue set in 1947 Rangoon depicts the assassination of Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, a hero to his people for the key role he played in liberating Burma from British rule. Only 3 when her father is killed, Suu Kyi is next seen in 1988, as a beautiful, seemingly carefree woman (now played by Michelle Yeoh) living in British domestic bliss with her husband, Oxford academic Michael Aris (David Thewlis), and their two sons, Kim (Jonathan Raggett) and Alex (Jonathan Woodhouse). But Suu Kyi shows her inner strength when she’s called back to Rangoon to care for her ailing mother, and is horrified by fresh eruptions of violence and civil unrest.
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When the dictatorial Gen. Ne Win (Htun Lin) seems to bow to the revolutionaries’ demands, Suu Kyi’s friends and colleagues ask her to stay in Rangoon and lead the emergent National League for Democracy, recognizing that the daughter of the late Gen. Aung San would make a powerful figurehead for their cause. “This is the moment you always sensed would come,” Michael intones, a line that may confuse the uninformed, given how little of the couple’s personal commitment to Burma has made it to the screen.
Having appeared to concede, Gen. Ne Win and his ruthless military government plot to limit Suu Kyi’s influence without making the mistake of martyring her. To keep her from assuming her duties after her landslide victory in Burma’s first general election, they place her under house arrest for the next 15 years, with no access to phones, newspapers or TV, and very infrequent visits from her family members, who are barred from entering the country at almost every turn.
Drawn from interviews with key figures close to Suu Kyi, Rebecca Frayn’s first-produced screenplay is hard-pressed to construct a sufficient portrait of either the lady or the political firestorm in which she finds herself. While the momentous historical forces at work have been understandably curtailed to suit a 143-minute running time, the discourse needn’t have been so simplistic: While Gen. Ne Win barks orders at his uniform-clad minions, Suu Kyi impresses her supporters with pearls of wisdom like “Democracy will only work if we include everybody.”
The writing rarely rises above such platitudes, even in casual conversation; while English wasn’t Suu Kyi’s first language, surely her interactions with her husband and kids were delivered with less stilted formality than they are here. Besson’s direction is overall more staid and classical than one would expect from the French action specialist, reinforcing the sense of a complacent, risk-averse picture that seems to have taken its filmmaking cues from its heroine’s unflappable dignity. “The Lady” makes a tasteful spectacle of Suu Kyi’s noble suffering without grasping, or inviting the viewer to grasp, the political anger roiling beneath.
A commanding screen presence, Yeoh breathes poise and moral authority in every scene; when wearing flowers in her hair, as she does often here, she’s a vision of loveliness. But because her role essentially consists of a series of elegant soundbites, the actress isn’t given the resources to dig far beneath Suu Kyi’s placid surface. Nor is she able to illuminate the fierce inner struggle it must have taken her to confront years of isolation with grace and composure intact.
The love story is the film’s most compelling element, and in their final scenes in particular, Yeoh and Thewlis do establish a stirring sense of this couple’s unbreakable bond over more than a decade’s separation. Because he’s more in his element verbally than Yeoh and given a wider range of notes to play, Thewlis actually makes the strongest impression in the well-chosen cast, though Raggett and Woodhouse also shine as two sensitive, well-raised kids for whom the pain of parent-child separation arrived unexpectedly soon.
Production is beautifully assembled, with Thai locations standing in for Burma, though the action is largely confined to Michael’s Oxford home and the Rangoon estate that became Suu Kyi’s beautiful prison. Eric Serra’s over-emphatic score is supplemented with snatches of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” mainly during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony where Suu Kyi is honored in absentia, one of the few sequences here that realizes its emotional potential.